Here's a bunch from Henry Harlow, which he asked in a comment on Patreon:

1. As a relatively higher profile person than the average Russian, do you have any concerns about speaking freely about political issues? Are there still some mass media that are not controlled by the government? While I know you were not with us in Soviet times how do things compare to your understanding of those times to now in terms of a free society?

2. Does the average Russian citizen feel free to speak their minds politically?

3. Russian is rated high on having corruption and kelptocracy issues. Would you agree that corruption is a major problem in Russia? Are most of the people OK with the current levels of corruption/kelptocracy?

4. Is it accurate that in your view that the Russian people as a national character trait like to have a strong dominant leader type government. Sort of a large craving for an authoritarian government.

5. A projection on population size for Russian shows a loss of 23 million people by 2050. Would you say that it is at least accurate that the population of Russia will decrease dramatically by 2050?

6. Russia is heavily dependent on oil revenues as an economy thus damaged heavily by low oil prices and has been in recession or weak economy for a long time now. Do you see a path for Russia to get to better (now at 1.5% or so annually) economic growth in the near future?

7. What do you see after Putin? More of the same? Less of the same?

8. The USA has a about a 7.5% of adults over 15 having alcoholism. Russia has about 19% of adults over 15 having alcoholism. At least according to the World Health Organization. Is there any major or organized effort to bring that number down or is alcoholism level drinking is pretty much accepted or even not something that is noticed as a problem?

9. If I come to Russia should I not smile so much or do Russians understands Americans are major smilers and won’t be upset by my smiling?

10. Do you think Russia ultimately wants to absorb the Baltic States or is willing to leave them alone?

11. What are some of the thinks Americans don’t know about Russia we should know?

12. In what ways do you think we have the inaccurate thinking about Russia?

13. I noted that the poverty rate in the USA is about 13% per government standards. I also note in Russian the poverty rate is 13% by government standards. Since you lived in the USA for a good period of time are the USA and Russia standard of living for those in poverty the same or are the USA poverty folks living better than the Russia poverty folks?

Expand full comment


My profile isn't too high; and more importantly, the videos and writing I post are almost all in English, so I have no concerns in that regard.

Friends and relatives sometimes ask me whether I'm worried about being labeled "a foreign agent" (a relatively new legal status that made life of many NGOs much more difficult in Russia), and I answer—jokingly, but not jokingly—that I think I'm closer to being "the Russian propaganda" than to "a foreign agent". It is possible that, if the authorities did look at what I say, they'd consider me more of an ally than an enemy in the information war (though I don't know if I want to find out). But again, I'm too small and too English-speaking to attract their attention.

If I did talk in Russian about all the same things that I do in English, I'd be more concerned about drugs than politics. I talk freely about psychedelic experiences, which would likely be classified as propaganda of illegal drugs.

The reason I wouldn't be so concerned with politics is that I'm not much of an activist these days. My sense is you're more likely to get in trouble if you invite people to go to a protest or participate in a campaign of some sort; just stating your opinion—especially if it's not very radical, and I don't think mine is—is usually less problematic. That said, there's a lot of randomness to all of this, and the kind of attention one gets varies from person to person, depending on political aspirations, professional status, etc., and also chance.

Engaging in actual political work is definitely quite risky.


There is media that's not controlled by the government, but they're not so "mass" as television, which is totally under government's control. Some examples are Meduza (a Russian news site based in Latvia), Echo of Moscow (a radio station that is allowed to be very critical of the government despite being mostly owned by a media holding that's in turn owned by the government) and Dozhd (an online tv channel).

The most interesting free/oppositional media outlet, in my mind, is what Alexey Navalny, Putin's main opponent, is doing. It's more political propaganda that journalism in the sense that it's done by a team with very clear political aspirations (Navalny wants to be president), but it's more journalism than much of what professional journalists do because they do real investigations into corruption in the government. They've learned to do very effective reporting, both in video and text format. Their biggest hit was an expose of Dmitry Medvedev (prime minister and interim president between Putin's terms), which has 32 million views on their channel alone. I can't say I pay close attention to all they do, but it's interesting to see them grow and innovate. They are constantly being put behind bars though.


We definitely enjoy way, way more freedom than my parents did up until Perestroika. The 1985-1991 period is more difficult for me to be certain of. My sense is, in the absolute, there's still quite a bit more freedom now, but then, Gorbachev was trying to update an old repressive system and make it more open; now, Putin is trying to tighten the screws and get things like the Internet under control. So the trend is in the opposite direction, which contributes to the feeling of a lack of freedom.

Expand full comment

Ah, I am reading my weekly copy of Time Magazine and see a headline "Putin signs 'foreign agent' law." so I get it. I have had an experience of not feeling free to speak freely of course but only in social circles where I knew that the people would be offended or upset if I spoke about some political position that I knew was unpopular with that group. In that sense I have "censored" myself. I am sure that happens all over the world. Putin is a liberal compared to what is going on with Ji and China. It is really astounding how they are using technology to control behavior. They will be exporting all of that technology to other countries. Quite frightening to those of us who value classical liberal democracy.

Expand full comment

> 10. Do you think Russia ultimately wants to absorb the Baltic States or is willing to leave them alone?

I don't think that 'Russia wants' to absorb any state at all in terms of land-grab or anything like that. I believe there are two main reasonings in Russia's foreign policy:

1. To be a balancing power for the world and to keep its Sovereignty. Russia will never allow USA/NATO or any other power to get too close to its borders in any kind of sense. It has to protect itself, and even more than that — world's freedom of "One Global Leadership".

2. To protect "Russian world" (meaning russian-speaking people mainly), the identity of russian culture.

I actually don't feel like 'Russia' (in eternal, metaphysical way) has empire-like ambitions. Russia's archetype is a Great Balancer and a Great Defender. Russia is counter-culture on a global scale to the point of not caring which culture to counter, if that makes any sense.

So if Russia will feel threatened by Baltic states — it will work towards controlling or suppressing them. But I don't believe Russia wants to absorb them in second sense (defending 'russian world'). It's completely different towards Ukraine, Belarus, and some of the other ex-USSR states.

Expand full comment

So I think it gets very messy very quickly when you mix concrete foreign policy questions/predictions with the "eternal, metaphysical" talk, so I'll try to do the opposite of what you've done here and narrow the question a bit.

In practical terms, we should be talking about Putin's view of the situation, not what "Russia wants ultimately".

My understanding (I'm basing this on views Putin expressed in private conversations with Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the aforementioned Echo of Moscow radio station, which V. then relayed in public) is Putin thinks Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians are one people divided by a catastrophic turn of events at the end of the Soviet period. He sees the current situation as unnatural and would like to fix it if an opportunity arises. So these are the countries that have the most to worry about trying to lead an independent existence.

This is not at all the way he sees the Baltic states. Even during the Soviet times, they were generally seen as somewhat separate from the rest of the Union, not quite part of the family. If it wasn't for a large Russian population inside, they'd be seen as totally outside of this issue, like Finland.

The fact that this Russian population is there makes things complicated, and that's where I'd leave it. I don't think Putin wants to absorb Latvia or Estonia, but I think he does want to do something for that "Russian world" you spoke about, be seen as a protector of Russians outside of Russia. So I guess this means there's always be tension here, but how this tension is going to be used is determined by the circumstance. But I don't think there's a real concern of something like what happened with Crimea happening there while Putin is in charge.

What happens after Putin is very difficult to predict. To my mind, it's possible that, instead of trying to gain new territories, Russia falls apart further (or tries to seriously decentralize while preserving common borders, which still would be a huge change). But it's something to speculate about for fun, but not to try to make serious predictions about.

Expand full comment

Since the USA is not organized around ethnicity (it is organized around "the rule of law" which is admittedly imperfect in the USA although it has improved since the beginning) I would not have naturally thought protecting a, shall I say, the Russian diaspora as what might motivate a Russian to say take Crimea. I also have been collapsing the distinction between what a Russian person might think and what Putin thinks. Indeed those might be very different. In my readings in the USA media Ukrainians not in Crimea or maybe the ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine are quite negative on Russia these days. I don't know much at all about Belarus as it rarely makes the news in the USA in at least my readings. That said I know there has been an authoritarian type leader of the country since the Soviet break up. All good things I have learned from your answer.

Expand full comment

"I actually don't feel like 'Russia' (in eternal, metaphysical way)..."

Oh boy. This was inevitable, wasn't it.

Expand full comment

Well heaven knows the USA is no saint so I am sure countries and yest the world needs to look out for the excesses of the USA speaking as a USA native citizen who is on the left of center so you know my bias. Those on the right of center might have a shorter list of say "USA sins" than one on the left. The Baltic states are members of NATO. It would be real messy should that cause Russia to move in. I just could not predict how that would turn out. Could be a hot war or could be the collapse of NATO as they won't come to the aide of the Baltic States.

Expand full comment

Hi there!

My name is Sergey Petrov and I'm Nikita's older brother. It seems that you have quite a number of questions here, so I decided to drop in and try to help answer some of those :)

So, I'll start from (2).

> 2. Does the average Russian citizen feel free to speak their minds politically?

It is (as many things in Russia) strange.

First of all, you should understand, there's absolutely no control over individual's speak or thought. Russia is not like NK, Iran or whatever else dictatorship it is often compare to. In a strange way, Russia on individual level is more free than most of western countries, mainly, because 'no-one cares'.

As long, as you are not activist and your speech or points are not reaching substantial audiences, it's all fine. People working in police, people serving in army, high-level government officials or shop clerks and , everyone enjoys rather complete private(!) speech freedom, including what you would've call 'hate speech', unhinged racism, sexism or whatever -isms there are.

There are two ways how you can get in a position when you have to think what you say:

1. You become part of the government in any way. School teachers, police officers, simple government clerks, definitely government officials, etc. Nothing too bad won't happen to you, but it is quite simple to get fired from your position if you go public (or viral) with some statement that is not in line with what is considered to be, I guess, loyal.

2. You are a private person but suddenly you are actually affecting something in government realm. Mainly, if you try to be elected. It's not like you can't freely criticise the government, it is a problem when you are trying to get actual political power.

There is also a number of specific issues that government lately use to control your speech: "drug propaganda", "extremism" (this is a big one), "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to children", etc.

"Loyality" is a big concept in Russia. Family loyality, country's loyalty, loyalty to your neighbourhood, friends, criminal or work partners or whatever. It is widely accepted that loyalty to 'your people' is much more important than any law, justice or morale. There are very few exceptions to that rule: not even murder. Pedofilia comes to mind, not much else.

What I'm trying to get to: Russia's control of a speech is not top-down, when government decides what can and can't be said. It's decentralised, it's something cultural and it's based on mafia-like culture where it is 'zapadlo' (something like "beneath the dignity") to break loyalty to your people. If you are working in school — you have to be loyal to people who pays your salary. If you are working in police — you have to be loyal to your fellow officers, even if they commit crime (and they do). Same goes to family affairs — it is considered wrong to 'wash your dirty linen in public'.

Hope that sheds some light.

Expand full comment

Thanks for joining in Sergey. Freedom of speech is a big thing in the USA. There are some limits in the sense if one says something or publishes something that defames someone then they could wind up with a lawsuit from the aggrieved party that if upheld in court by jury or a judge trial an amount of damages in dollars would be awarded by the court. It is hard to win those suits though so the people who sue lose much of the time if not most of the time. Another limitation is to incite violence or unlawful activity. In addition, people who are “public figures” have less ability to win lawsuits for defamation than a not public figure.

Interesting that one can criticize the government as long as one is not seeking political power. Political speech in the USA other than inciting violence is anything goes. Moreover, believe me it does go! With the rise of Trump, we have reached new levels of anything goes from both sides of the political spectrum.

Interesting the part about loyalty. Totally did not know that is a big value in the Russian culture. I have not studied it and I wonder if holding the value of loyalty is related to being high on the authoritarian scale. I do know those on the right of center tend to be more aligned with authoritarian way of thinking. Not that the left and particularly the far left have their authoritarian thinking people as well. I think this is also related to the whole history of evolution that has humans being social animals that tend to group into tribes.

Thanks so much for the contribution.

Expand full comment

Great thread. Nikita, how do the majority of Russians view the idea that Putin interfered in 2016 US elections (and elsewhere)? #2. I understand from some news articles that Stalin’s popularity as a national hero is on the rise there (!). #3. How are the extrajudicial killings of Russian journalists and others viewed there?

Expand full comment


The most common reaction I've seen is mild amusement.

For some, the amusing part is the very idea that Russia can seriously influence American elections (the person may or may not believe this can be true, but in either case, it's a novel and funny idea); for others, it's the fact that Americans—well-known for interfering in everything everywhere—are so outraged by Russia trying to do the same.

Expand full comment

Interesting. While the US has definitely interjected itself into foreign politics, it seems Putin’s minions are doing so blatantly and indiscriminately throughout not just the Americas but also Europe. I think it’s a travesty for any country to assert itself in another country’s concerns (genocide and the like notwithstanding ).

Expand full comment

I second your disapproval, but have to admit I personally don't see anything new here. That's a big part of what international relationships are: all of these so-called "great nations" (and Russia has great insecurity about its status as "a great nation", people feel they once was that and are supposed to be now, and yet neither the economic situation at home, nor the treatment we get from the West allow them to feel "great"; paradoxically, the worsening of international relations does give this feeling to some: if we are feared/hated, then we are at least noticed, have to be accounted for) can't help but get into each other's business.

I mean, Lenin himself got aid from the German government to overthrow the Tsarist regime in Russia: https://www.dw.com/en/how-germany-got-the-russian-revolution-off-the-ground/a-41195312 (I recognize this is century-old news, bringing it up may feel a bit random—but this kind of historic memory still plays a role in how countries see one another; those old events still have effects on today.)

My personal feelings about the Russian meddling in the US elections—or maybe more precisely, Americans' reaction to the Russian meddling in the US elections—are to some extent defined by how I felt about American involvement in the Ukrainian revolution.

The Russian propaganda painted the whole thing as an American project. I found that appalling. Americans were clearly a part of the situation—I mean, McCain personally flew in from the other side of the world to address protestors from the stage in the main square of the capital, as they demanded the President to step down... Can you imagine something like that happening in the US, a foreign official addressing protestors in front of the Capitol? And yet, to use these kinds of things to try to take away the agency from the Ukrainian people who managed to take their own government down—not an easy task!—is just unfair. And the reason this was done is transparent: by dismissing the people's uprising in Ukraine as "being fueled by the West", you make it easier to dismiss protests at home the same way. I myself have been accused, numerous times, of being "paid by Hillary Clinton" for participating in anti-Putin protests in Russia.

So I feel similarly about Trump in the US. You shouldn't feel happy about Putin trying to influence American elections, and you shouldn't feel happy about Trump using that. But you shouldn't let this overshadow the fact that, at the end of the day, it was American citizens who voted for him. If your goal is to beat Trump in the upcoming election, you shouldn't take away the agency from his supporters, and you shouldn't avoid your own responsibility in losing to him the first time around. Focusing on Putin distracts you from political work.

(Just to reiterate: the above is my personal opinion, not "how Russians see the situation"—a step away from what I've been trying to do in this thread—but I hope this is still of some interest.)

Expand full comment

Nikita, thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts. They dismay me a bit, but I appreciate your candidness. The gist reminds me of Mick Mulvaney’s defense of Trump’s behavior in turning the screw on Ukraine’s president for assistance in his 2020 bid: “We do that all the time. Get over it!” I think it’s important to call out bad actors whether the US, Russia, North Korea or China’s Current horrifying treatment of the Uighurs. What are we collectively willing to tolerate in a civilized world? http://www.openculture.com/2019/03/does-democracy-demand-the-tolerance-of-the-intolerant-karl-poppers-paradox.html

What sort of Mindful Resistance does Buddhism teach?

Expand full comment

Oh, I agree it's important to call them out. But my feeling is Trump's opposition has been spending more time and energy on the calling out part than on preparing a candidate that would win in 2020. That puts them in danger of 4 more years of calling out.

And as for Putin: boy, there's a lot to call him out for; but that alone doesn't stop him, and in this case, I think, actually works in his favor. Obama called Russia "a regional power," but now it's seen as a big player on the global stage, determining the most important elections in the world. That’s something Putin wants and can use at home.

The sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia is a more serious deal than simply calling Putin out, but I'm not at all sure they were a wise step either. The sanctions harm the population of Russia much more than they do the government and the oligarchs, and they reinforce the conflict, so 1) ordinary Russians feel worse about America as a whole, and 2) I don't think they deter Putin from continuing his strategy.

Buddhism is all about "skillful action." It's not enough to call out injustice, or even to actively fight it—we need to fight it the right way; think through the consequences of our actions and make sure they lead to a decrease in overall suffering and to an ending to harmful cycles. I'm not sure what the right course of actions would be from this perspective, but I think Bob would say the answer lies in strengthening the international law. If we manage to establish a system where Putin, Trump, their successors, other world leaders all have to adhere to certain rules of behavior, and all have an authority (like an international court or council) that they respect or are forced to respect, then we stand a better chance at dealing with such problems in the future.

The problem is such a system is hard to establish, given that many influential actors—such as Russia and the US—have a bad record of respecting international agreements and can point to one another’s transgressions saying, like kids do, “he started it!”

Expand full comment

Are there Drive through car washes in Russia?

Expand full comment

Yes. No drive-in movie theaters though. Do those still exist in America?

Expand full comment

Yes, there are a very few in all of the USA. Maybe 50 but I bet not 100. For example in the Orlando metro media market of a couple of million people there are none. When I search the online Yellow Pages I get 4 in the state of Florida and Florida is the third biggest state in the USA by population.

Expand full comment

1. What do you think are common mis-understandings about Russians by people outside the country?

2. What two or 3 (common and uncommon) places would you recommend most to people visiting Russia and why?

3. What couple of topics divide younger and older Russians the most?

Expand full comment

3. I think these are mostly things relating to personal life, like the importance of having kids vs establishing a career (the older generation being more in favor of having kids early), the importance of education for work (the younger generation often thinking it's less important), the focus on having your own place as opposed to renting (the young being more comfortable with not owning and not trying to own property—partly because it's not an easy task at all). The young are also more willing to engage in political life—either more naive or less scared, depending on who you ask.

Expand full comment


As banal as this may sound, Moscow and St. Petersburg are the places that make sense to visit the most, at least on the first visit. These are the biggest cities where most things happen, you'll experience more than if you go to a less-traveled destination. Then, ideally, you make a friend and go to the countryside with them, have a drink and a heart-to-heart conversation in nature.

A less common destination that I highly recommend is Nikola-Lenivets, which is an art park next to a tiny village in Kaluga region. It's vast, beautiful, very true to the Russian spirit generally, somehow feeling both traditional and unconventional, and pretty integrated in the life of the surrounding villages. If you go during a festival (there are several each year), you'll get to meet both the locals and people from other cities, perhaps other countries. But going in a low season is its own kind of pleasure, walking around the fields and the forests, looking at wooden art, maybe getting a horse ride—all very good for one's soul :) Here are some pics and a description: http://en.nikola-lenivets.ru/park/en

Expand full comment

The video on the bottom of the page is really cool!

Expand full comment

I'll take this one by one.


In personal conversations during my travels, what I've seen the most is people who are aware they know very little about Russia (this is mostly in the US) and are curious to learn.

Then there were obvious misconceptions that were really weird to hear: that Russia is a communist country, for instance. This one was surprisingly common among Americans.

And then the really common ones are pretty fundamental, but subtle things, like the general notion that "Russians support Putin" or more broadly, that Russians choose to live in the system that we have. These two are connected.

It's not exactly false to say that most Russians support Putin. But in Western countries, "support" means something like "willing to vote for in a competitive election". In Russia, there are no competitive elections—Putin has never participated in a debate, not once in the 20 years he's been in power. So it's not choosing between two (or more) prominent politicians competing for the job; it's choosing between the status quo and some vaguely defined unpredictable scenario—a peaceful revolution, or a violent revolution, or a failed attempt at a revolution followed by a reaction—or a demand for change that could lead to either one of those. It's less about supporting what is and more about fearing the alternative. (Interestingly, one argument against honest elections, sometimes used by Putin supporters, is "If you let Russians choose, they'll elect an autocratic nationalist, and Putin will seem like the good old days.")

Expand full comment

Americans are for the most part woefully ignorant about foreign affairs. Then it is not covered much either by the media unless there is a war situation (like Syria) or a disaster of some sort. Like today, it is the volcano in New Zealand that killed many tourists. Those types of disasters are hardly political or about foreign affairs. That said, I think Russia gets a large amount of coverage in the US these days mostly because of Putin, according to the Mueller report as well as other intelligence reports the efforts of Russia to tamper with the political system in the USA via social media/internet, and the last few years the Crimea/ Ukraine/Russia issue. I have read over the decades upon occasion that the Russian character tends to like authoritarian governments. Not too surprising if that is true since it has pretty much been that way since the beginning of tribes in that part of the world. No real history of democracy to speak of. In addition, most human being in any country would pick the known over the unknown. Given the terrible experiences of the past in Russia, I can sure see why people would pick an existing known system over an unknown potential chaos or a worst “boss” should the existing boss fall.

Expand full comment